Where a Heart Would Fit Perfectly
by S. Qiouyi Lu
Penny looked in the mirror and frowned. No matter which way she turned, her dress seemed too sequined, too flashy, too… ridiculous. And her makeup felt garish even in the dim light backstage. But that was how all the dancers were made up—the stage lights would wash their faces out otherwise.
Just grin and bear it, Penny told herself. At least you’re getting paid this time.She tried on a smile. No, too fake. She planted her feet shoulder-width apart and placed her hands on her hips as she sucked in a couple deep breaths. Her mind quieted down as she centered herself.
This time, when she smiled, it looked almost genuine.
Today was the Hungry Ghost Festival, and Penny was one of the dozens of dancers accompanying the vocalists in tonight’s concert. As Penny stepped out onto the stage, she grinned more widely until her cheeks hurt, creating a caricature of emotion as she sparkled and glittered, whirling with the others.
It was all for the better that the stage lights were excruciatingly bright. Penny almost couldn’t see the ghosts sitting in the red-robed seats reserved for them in the front row.
Penny had performed in front of ghosts before, but usually only the occasional one—a grandma smiling in the audience as her grandson delivered a beautiful solo; a mother weeping as she watched her grown daughter twirl. The show must go on, as they say, and Penny always put on the mask, appearing unfazed as she traced elegant lines through the air.
But tonight was different. As the dancers spun to an old Faye Wong tune, more and more silvery figures stopped to watch. A chill was settling on the space, frosting the sweat on Penny’s skin, turning those shimmering spots into goosebumps.
Focus, Penny told herself, her heart racing even as she continued to smile with affected tranquility. You can get through this.
She spun, her arms extending the arcs of her body, her nerves thrumming with energy as sweat beaded on her brow. When she glanced at the first row, the faces were all too clear now, eyes roaming over the spectacle of light and sound.
As she leapt, her gaze landed on the most gorgeous girl she’d ever seen: hair thick and wavy, eyes endlessly dark, lips set in such a kissable pout that Penny couldn’t help but stare, her heart fluttering. The girl smiled when she noticed that Penny had seen her. Penny gasped and lost her balance. With a cry, she came tumbling down.
The performance hadn’t been as much of a disaster as Penny thought. She’d picked herself up again immediately—thankfully, she hadn’t sprained anything—and continued through the motions until the end of the show, her cheeks burning as she kept her gaze firmly above the audience. When the performers joined hands and bowed at the end, Penny finally allowed herself to look into the audience again. The ghost girl had vanished.
Penny didn’t bother changing out of her dance outfit. As soon as she stepped off the stage, she wove through the crowds, determined to find the girl.
The girl had looked out of place. Not just because of her young age, but also her appearance. All the other ghosts meandering around her—and through her, invariably making her shudder—looked Chinese. She caught bits of Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese along with English.
But that girl had looked Mexican. Maybe Filipino. Penny told herself that she was motivated entirely by curiosity, and nothing more. She simply wanted to see who the girl was and how she’d found her way to the festival.
It was not, Penny told herself, because the girl had intrigued her with her awestruck stare… and was cute as hell.
Penny roamed through the halls of Hsi Lai temple, which had been transformed for the occasion. A stage had been set up in the central courtyard. On the edges of the courtyard were row after row of altars for the dead, each piled near toppling with food—fresh fruit, chips, baozi… Penny was tempted to pocket something for herself, but to actually do so still felt sacrilegious, even though she was a lapsed Buddhist.
She found the ghost girl in a quieter corner of the temple, which was still no easy feat. Hsi Lai was the second-largest Buddhist temple in the United States, and, by the time she found the girl, Penny’s thighs were aching from all the stairs she’d climbed.
The girl had her back to Penny, but she still knew it was her. Her hair tumbled over her shoulders in wild cascades, curling in arabesque patterns, as if there were poetry written in the strands. She was translucent, glowing silver like moonlight as she reached out for a baozi. When she lifted it, only the glittering spirit of the baozi came away in her hand. The earthly body of the baozi remained on the plate. Still, as
Penny came around to stand before the girl, she could tell that she was enjoying the food.
“Hi,” Penny said. The girl nearly choked.
“Jesus Christ,” the girl said. “Or Siddhartha Gautama, if you want to be religiously accurate, I guess.”
Penny couldn’t help but laugh. The girl smiled sheepishly.
“I was hoping you did actually see me,” she said, “Even though it’s never happened before. I’m Isabel.”
She stuck out her hand. Penny made to shake it, but her fingers slipped right through Isabel’s with a chill like frostbite. Penny winced, rubbing her hands together to get some warmth back into them.
“Penny,” she said, cutting Isabel off before she could apologize for the failed handshake. “Nice to meet you.”
“Same,” Isabel said between bites of ghost baozi, then wedges of ghost orange and sleeves of ghost Oreos. “So, can you see all ghosts, or just me?”
“All,” Penny said, watching as the spirit of an old granny hobbled down the opposite corridor, farting with every step. “Unfortunately.”
“Huh,” Isabel said. She moved on from the Oreos to ghostly Pringles, her expression pensive. “Must be tiring.”
“You have no idea,” Penny said, glad that someone else saw her ability as neither a superpower nor a curse, but simply a weight. “Everyone thought I was hallucinating. But I’m on antipsychotics and I still see ghosts. So I’m pretty sure you’re real.”
“Hell yeah I’m real,” Isabel said, puffing out her chest. “Realest mofo you’ll ever meet.” She held out her ghost chips. “Pringle?”
“I don’t think I can have those,” Penny said. Isabel seemed disappointed for a moment, then perked up again when Penny took one of the living Pringles and munched on it. “Damn. Do they always taste like cardboard, or is it just because you got to them first?”
“I eat them for the crunch, not the flavor. And because I’m hungry as fuck.”
“Well, they do call it the Hungry Ghost Festival for a reason,” Penny said, smiling as Isabel’s eyes widened.
“Oh shit, is that what this is? I was wondering why everyone was coming over here. Dope.”
They’d finally gotten around to what had piqued Penny’s interest. She peered at Isabel’s face, noting how the hues changed on the apples of Isabel’s cheeks, as if she were blushing.
“I don’t want to be rude, but you don’t exactly look Chinese,” Penny said. This time, it was Isabel’s turn to laugh.
“Girl, I’m about as Chinese as Panda Express.”
“…which was founded and run by Chinese immigrants…”
“Okay, bad example. About as Chinese as, I don’t know, Panera’s ‘Asian’ salad, I guess.”
Penny nodded as Isabel made her way through a box of Cheez-its, devouring the crackers by the handful.
“Fair enough. So what’s your heritage, then? Mexican?”
“Yeah. Came over for Día de los Muertos last year but didn’t make it back before the church bells started ringing.” She looked around. The ghost of an old grandpa was determined to eat an apple with his one tooth, while, further away, the ghost of an auntie tutted loudly as she hovered over what appeared to be her long-suffering son-in-law. “God, it’s so good to be able to talk to someone again. It’s been nine months. I feel like I’m having a conversation baby.”
Penny laughed, but then Isabel’s words caught up with her.
“Didn’t make it back?” she said as Isabel finished three ghostly egg tarts. “What, you’re stuck?”
“These are booomb,” Isabel said through a mouthful of crumbs. “What are they?”
“Egg tarts,” Penny said, sliding a few more over. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Huh? Oh.” Isabel finished the rest of the egg tarts and picked her way through a few bags of Lay’s, crunching loudly. “Yeah, I guess you could put it that way. I’m stuck. Been trying to get back to the underworld since November. Really sucks to be around people who don’t know you’re right there in front of them.”
At that, Isabel’s expression fell a bit, but she caught herself before she took on an outright gloomy expression. Penny could imagine what was behind the bitter edge of Isabel’s voice—parents? siblings? lovers? friends?
Then, an idea struck Penny.
“I can help you,” she said slowly, letting the idea take form in her mind. “I think.”
Isabel stopped munching and clutched her bag of chips tight, her jaw dropping. It was such a cartoonish expression of shock that Penny didn’t mind seeing the half-chewed chips on Isabel’s tongue.
“Really?” she said finally, as if afraid to ask.
“Well,” Penny said, frowning as she worked through the logistics, “We light lanterns at the end of the festival to guide ghosts back to the underworld. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll work for you, too.”
“Hmm.” Isabel tossed away the chip bag—“Hey, that’s littering!” “Call the ghost five-o, then!”—and moved on to a package of Chips Ahoy.
“That raises a lot of interfaith questions. Like, is the Buddhist underworld the same as the Catholic afterlife?” Deep in contemplation, she made a face like a bunny rabbit scrunching up its nose. Penny found the expression endearing as hell. “You know, I never asked the others if they were also Catholic. Well, lapsed Catholic. I don’t think I saw many Buddhists…”
She ate her way to the ghostly pit of a ghost peach, her mind working away at the proposal.
“It’s worth a try,” she said, tossing away the peach pit—“Littering again!” “It’s biodegradable!”—and stuffing a couple more peaches into her pockets.
“The lanterns won’t be lit for another…” Penny pulled her phone out from her bra and checked the time. “…hour and a half, though.”
“That’s fine,” Isabel said. “You mind if I chill with you until then?”
“Mind?” Penny grinned. She was already starting to like this silly chatterbox of a ghost. “I’d like that.”
“Who’s that?” Isabel asked. They’d left the altars and gone into a grand, ornate room, reverent in its silence. A statue looked down benevolently on them.
“Guanyin. The goddess of mercy,” Penny replied. She grabbed a few sticks of incense. Whether out of habit or because she wanted to show a piece of her heritage to Isabel, she wasn’t sure.
Penny stepped over to a flickering candle in a pool of hot wax and lit the four joss sticks. The number for death, she thought as she waved the sticks until the flames extinguished into a soft smolder that left trails of blue-gray smoke in its wake.
Isabel paused her feasting as Penny knelt on one of the cushions before Guanyin. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, centering herself as she pressed her palms together with the incense between them, touching the roots of her thumbs to her forehead, then to her heart as she allowed herself to exist in the calmness within her.
Penny had never understood prayer as it had been explained to her in a Christian sense. It always felt as if she were in conversation with her own mind: Thoughts and intentions drifted into a void, answered only by the voices beneath the surface of her consciousness. Prayer in a Buddhist sense felt different, as if she were offering a moment of her being without expecting a response. She still wasn’t very religious, going to the temple like others might stop by an ice cream shop for a special occasion, but the serenity of being under Guanyin’s forgiving gaze never grew meaningless.
Penny waved the incense sticks a few times before touching her palms to her forehead again. She opened her eyes, regarding Guanyin for a moment, then planted the still-smoldering joss sticks upright into the bronze basin before the statue.
“Beautiful,” Isabel murmured, and Penny blushed, unsure if she meant her, the ritual, or Guanyin.
An older woman who had been praying before another statue stood to get a set of kau chim sticks and a pair of jiaobei. She returned to where she’d been praying and murmured to herself as she shook the cup holding the sticks, stopping to use the jiaobei after a single stick fell out.
“Fortune telling,” Penny said when she noticed Isabel watching with rapt attention. “I can draw a fortune for you, if you’d like.”
“Yes, please,” Isabel breathed. “I got kicked out of Catholic school for messing around with occult shit. Wild how fortune telling is just… part of everything here.”
Penny smiled. Her heritage became invisible sometimes out here in the San Gabriel Valley, where every other person was Chinese. Surrounded by hanzi and the practices of her people, her habits and rituals became rote. Rather than feel strange over Isabel’s wonder, Penny found that her heart swelled with the desire to share—to welcome, to open the door for Isabel’s curiosity. Her interest was genuine, with no edge of exoticism.
“You know,” Penny said as she picked up the kau chim and the jiaobei that the woman had placed back, “When Christianity was outlawed in Japan, people made statues of Mary disguised as Kannon, their name for Guanyin. I’d like to think that if she’s the goddess of mercy, she wouldn’t have given a shit if you messed with the occult.”
Penny knelt back onto the cushion and held out the cup.
“Ready? Think of a question. And don’t be wishy-washy about it. It won’t work if you can’t make up your mind.”
Penny began to shake the cup. The sticks clattered against each other, the rhythm soothing in itself. Penny’s breathing steadied. She ignored the other people, living and dead, as she watched the sticks. A few of them had immediately jutted out more, but, after a few more shakes, only one fell to the floor. Before she picked it up, she gave the jiaobei a toss. One round, one flat. Good. She picked up the stick and noted the number marked on it—42—before putting the divination tools away.
“What now?” Isabel asked, trailing behind Penny, the half-eaten peach in her hand forgotten as she absently set it down on an altar.
“First, you grab the poem marked with the number. Forty-two, in this case,” Penny said, pulling a slip of paper from a selection of about a hundred. “Then, you read the poem. Or ask someone to interpret it for you. There are usually monks here for that reason.”
Isabel glanced around, then gave a start when she saw a monk in flowing robes sitting in the corner.
“Didn’t notice,” she said.
She leaned over Penny’s shoulder to look at the poem. Penny shivered as Isabel’s hair fell through her shoulders. Her breaths came out in warm, visible puffs, quickening as Isabel’s cheek nearly touched hers.
The poem read:
Penny squinted at the fortune. She recognized many of the characters, but her Chinese wasn’t good enough for her to understand the significance of the poem. And she had no idea what the other columns of characters underneath the poem meant.
“What does it say?” Isabel asked. Penny’s heart thudded against her tightening sternum as Isabel hovered over her. This close, she could see the freckles dotting the bridge of Isabel’s nose and the shifting shadows in her irises as candles flickered around them. Penny tore her gaze away, focusing instead on the paper.
“Not sure,” she said, making her way over to the monk. “Let’s find out.”
The monk acknowledged Penny with a nod, but didn’t seem to see Isabel. Penny gave a polite half-bow as she held out the slip of paper. The monk’s hands were liver-spotted with age, and her head was freshly shaven. Her expression was serious, but the crow’s feet around her eyes hinted at a warm nature.
“Could you interpret this for me?” Penny asked.
The monk took the slip and read it over carefully, then consulted a worn book by her side. After a moment, she spoke, her English lightly accented with the shapes and sounds of Mandarin.
“‘A river crossing, a mountain peak. Who knows how difficult this path may be? If you expect change, it will not come. In the end, you will not find peace.’ Making your living from the sea: High chance of success. Seeking fortune: Not profitable. Farming: No harvest. Business: Difficult to break even. Pregnancy: Hard labor before bearing a son. Marriage: Unlucky and unstable. Moving: Uneasy transition. Lost items: Hard to find. Searching for someone: Little chance of success. Illness: A struggle—do not fear your last days. Family: Divided. Conceiving: Unsuccessful.” The monk handed the slip of paper back to Penny. “A bad fortune. But not an end.”
Penny thanked the monk and dropped a handful of change into the donation box. Isabel had gone pale, if such a thing could be visible from her translucent form. Penny stepped away from the monk and back toward the statue of Guanyin.
“It’s just a fortune,” Penny said when she noticed that Isabel still hadn’t recovered. “They’re vague and always applicable.”
“I…” Isabel said, then stopped. “I never told you how I died.”
Penny had noticed that Isabel was young, somewhere in her twenties, but she hadn’t felt compelled to ask. She shrugged.
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to,” Isabel said. “Unless you’d rather not hear it.”
There was an edge of need in Isabel’s voice, a pleading note that lodged itself into Penny’s throat. She’d had spirits talk to her before, some far less considerate about sharing details of their deaths, others unable, or unwilling, to remember. It still didn’t make the subject of death any easier for her. But she could tell that speaking aloud would bring Isabel peace.
Isabel took a deep breath.
“I never got along with my family. But after losing my job, I had to give up my dreams of the big city and move back in with my dad in South Pasadena.” She fiddled with a lock of hair, twirling it around her finger as she bit her lip. “I hated it—he’s a toxic fountain of negativity, and I absorbed that like a sponge, then squeezed that back out onto my friends and the rest of my family. Until they started leaving, one after another.”
Isabel looked away, a sad smile on her face, as if the act of working those muscles would ease her discomfort.
“I was full of anger. So much anger that it took over me and choked me with rage. And when I rage, when I hate, my target is always myself.”
She paused. Penny gave her a moment. Interrupting her now might stop her train of thought and deny her the closure she so clearly wanted. After a couple of false starts, Isabel took another deep breath as she avoided Penny’s gaze.
“I drove myself off the 10 overpass. That exchange between Diamond Bar and Pomona. I’d gone out when I was so pissed I couldn’t think straight, and I let the impulses take over. And, well.” She shrugged. “I lied to you—I didn’t miss the church bells. My sister had put out an ofrenda for me on Día de los Muertos. But my family, they don’t understand suicide. To them, it’s a sin. A shame.”
She turned, trying to wipe her eyes surreptitiously. Penny averted her gaze to give Isabel some space and dignity.
“My mother and sister had an argument. I don’t remember about what, exactly. But they tore down the ofrenda. And I’ve been cut out—erased. The photos of me are gone. My room is a guest room now.”
“I’m sorry,” Penny said. Whatever words she could offer were never enough to convey the gravity of that grief—the grief of the deceased, and her own secondhand grief, repeated through counseling the dead. But by now, she’d gotten used to compartmentalizing others’ pain so that it wouldn’t carry over into her own life. If there was one thing she appreciated about going to therapy, it was learning that skill. She’d counseled the dead since she was six years old. The ghosts had no one else to speak to, and she found it easier to comfort them than to ignore them.
“The thing is,” Isabel said after a moment of silence, “Maybe I could have found peace. Maybe I could have created change instead of just waiting for it. Maybe…”
Isabel smiled, bittersweet this time.
“Maybe I could’ve met you under different circumstances. Better ones.”
Penny’s heart skipped a beat. She looked into Isabel’s eyes, wondering if she too felt the way space softened between them, the way they eased into a comfortable tempo with each other like swans gliding onto the water’s surface.
But they couldn’t have that, not romantically, not platonically. Penny would be the only person Isabel could interact with, and no true love can be born of one person orbiting the other, their universe recentered onto one soul. Penny had seen what happened to ghosts who lingered on Earth, away from the underworld. They withered. Morphed. Became vortexes of want, their humanness gradually stripped away by time.
“Maybe,” she said. She looked up into Guanyin’s tranquil face. Compassion. Mercy. “But,” she said, smiling encouragingly as she gestured to the people beginning to flow past the temple doors, “These circumstances aren’t too bad, either.”
Penny watched Isabel’s ghostly silhouette as she stood on the edge of a clear pool of water surrounded by statues of Immortals and other Buddhist figures. A few paper lotuses were already floating on the surface, their tiny flames gilding her silvery figure with a rosy warmth.
“So this is the way back,” Isabel murmured, gazing at the line of souls passing through the flickering light and down into the water, where they vanished. “To the underworld. To a place where people can see me and hear me and talk to me.”
“Yes,” Penny said, her heart twisting in her chest. “Where you can have more than just me to chill with.”
Isabel shook her head.
“You say that as if ‘just you’ isn’t a lot already.”
Penny looked away. Much as she understood the reality of what she could and couldn’t have with Isabel, the fact remained that her heart was still hollowing itself with the impending loss of a friend. Penny didn’t have many friends herself, and she missed having someone she could joke around with, someone who would be completely unfazed by her ability.
“You know what I mean.”
A moment of silence passed between them. Penny flicked a lighter over and over, the flame flashing like a firefly.
“I’ll set out an ofrenda for you,” Penny said. “For Día de los Muertos. It’s coming up, after all. You’re welcome back any time.”
Isabel began crying, the tears sparkling like crystals. Penny’s heart felt empty and heavy at the same time, as if it were beating with only half its strength, as if her ribcage had space for another, needed another heart.
“Thank you, Penny,” she said softly. “That means a lot to me.”
Penny took a paper lotus from the table. She ran her fingers over its petals, savoring the delicate texture of the tissue paper, the glowing light that filtered through the thin boundary. She set the lotus on the edge of the pond, just shy of the rippling water.
“Ready?” Penny asked. Isabel flashed her a trembling smile, trying to look brave as she wiped away her tears.
Penny lit the lotus and set it adrift. Isabel’s ghostly hand slipped into hers as she pecked her cold lips against Penny’s cheek.
But Penny shushed her with a kiss, or at least the spirit of one, Isabel’s freezing-cold lips stinging hers.
“This isn’t a goodbye,” she said. “It’s only a little distance. I’ll see you again soon.”
With that, she let go of Isabel’s hand. As Penny’s dress sparkled in the candlelight, Isabel floated away from her, following the succession of ghosts back to the underworld.
About the Author
S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their fiction and poetry have appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and Strange Horizons, and their translations have appeared in Clarkesworld. They edit the flash fiction and poetry magazine Arsenika. You can find out more about S. at their website, s.qiouyi.lu.
About the Narrator
Rebecca Wei Hsieh (she/her) is a Taiwanese/Taiwanese American actor, writer, translator, and sensitivity reader based in NYC. Having grown up across several continents, her work focuses on the interplay between Asia and the Asian diaspora, gender, queerness, and mental illness, and has been featured in outlets like We Need Diverse Books, Wear Your Voice Magazine, Book Riot, and The Dot and Line. She has a BA in theatre and Italian studies from Wesleyan University, and you can follow her attempts to use her liberal arts degree at rwhsieh.com
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.